Summer’s End

As we all come to terms with the fading days of summer, minds turn to the challenges facing councillors across the city-region. Many of the difficulties to be faced this autumn, and on into the winter, are entirely down to the failure of councils to act responsibly, despite having a mandate to do so. Important although it is, finance – and government imposed austerity – is not the only issue to be resolved.

Take, for example, the ongoing saga of Liverpool’s failed development projects, and the scams associated with them. No one can say that the mayor and council were not aware of what was going on. Naturally, although it now claims otherwise, the mealy-mouthed Echo failed in its duty to inform the wider public of the truth, until forced to do so by the pressure brought to bear by private citizens and defrauded investors. Even now, they give an extremely partial version of events. There are none so blind as those who will not see. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the belated posturing of the Echo, the councillors themselves were most certainly informed of the burgeoning scandal.

Now there has been an announcement of a council panel to look at the root of the scams – what is known as fractional selling of properties not yet built. As usual, the council (or the mayor) has been slow to react; but what is proposed is wholly unsatisfactory. Firstly, the panel which has been assembled to examine the issue is comprised solely of councillors. With great respect to the members of that panel, one must wonder at their qualifications for this particular job, given the councillors’ collective failure to address the problem even as the council’s coffers and investors were being ripped off. There will be little faith in their objectivity in the matter.

Secondly, it is not clear what the terms of reference for this panel’s work are. Fractional selling is only part of the problem. What about the council’s failure to exercise due diligence when dealing with the cowboys involved in the failed developments? Are panel councillors to beat their breasts for the collective failure of the council and the mayor on so many levels?  I doubt it. It is why only an independent panel, chaired by a reputable and knowledgeable person, is able to do the job required, if there is to be a credible outcome.

Meanwhile, I note that Liverpool’s mayor is to meet the EFC owner this coming week for discussions. With every passing day, it appears that there are increasing doubts about the viability of the mayor’s irresponsible proposal to borrow money to finance a new EFC stadium. Perhaps the rumours are true that Mr Moshiri’s sidekick – Russian oligarch Mr Alisher Usmanov  – will buy into EFC now that he has sold his interest in Arsenal FC. For his part, the mayor should be more focussed on Operation Sheridan in Lancashire. We know about the involvement of three former Liverpool Council senior executives in Lancashire’s One Direct organisation. It now transpires that there are four additional unnamed suspects whose files have been passed to the Crown Prosecution Service for consideration for prosecution – and the police have yet to decide on the scandal of our equivalent organisation- Liverpool Direct – in their work.

It is not as if it is only Liverpool’s council facing difficulties in the weeks and months ahead. I note that Knowsley Council’s returning officer, amid claims of bullying at polling stations, felt it necessary to publicly appeal for calm in the recent Halewood South by-election. The ruling Labour group was nervously trying to ensure the quick return to the council of former aspiring council leader, Gary See. Their worry was that their dominant position in the council would be weakened with the loss of a seat in an area which has always, until this year, been a shoo-in for Labour candidates.

Meanwhile, I am being told that the Labour leadership on Wirral council – the Chuckle Brothers of the Labour group, Phil and George Davies – could be on their way out. They stand accused, amongst other things, of being out of touch with both their members and the electorate. Problems range from Peel’s failure to come good on their exaggerated promises for the Twelve Quays site, to catastrophic misjudgement on green spaces proposals. There is real anger across the borough and someone will carry the can. Perhaps they will learn that with power comes responsibility.

One thing is certain. The city-region is never short of controversy; nor can we be surprised at whatever turns up next. I will be looking at the Labour Party annual conference to see who gives to delegates the traditional welcoming address. It is normally the role of the ceremonial Lord Mayor, but I wonder if the executive mayor’s ego leads him to try to muscle in on his party’s showpiece.


Time for Change

Some years ago, I was visited in my office by a well-known local “personality” and solicitor, the late Kevin Alphonsus Dooley. One of his striking features was the amount of gold jewellery which he sported – rings and bracelets – an obvious signal of his material success. He had also represented many local notables, including former chief constable, Ken Oxford, and former Liverpool FC manager, Roy Evans. His issue was a simple one. Although he had never been convicted, or even charged, with any criminal offence, he had been disbarred as a lawyer by the solicitors’ regulatory authority.

In the course of the interview, he told me that he had been accused of money laundering on behalf of local criminals, but no action of any sort had been taken against him within the criminal justice system. To evidence his innocence of any wrongdoing, he showed me what he claimed were receipts for the transfer of large sums of money to the celebrated Hollywood producer/director, Francis Ford Coppola, a man made mega-rich via classic films like “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now”. Of course, I had no way of judging whether or not these documents were authentic. Nor could I properly evaluate Mr. Dooley’s claim that he was transferring money as investments in the movie mogul’s film making. What was most striking to me was the power of the solicitors’ regulatory body to stop Mr. Dooley – or any other solicitor – in his tracks.

I was reminded of this when I discovered recently that Wirral solicitor David Roberts had met the same fate at the hands of the solicitors’ regulatory body, being disbarred and his practice closed down. I had noted that Mr. Roberts (very often alongside another Wirral solicitor, Mr. David Sewell) had been a director of a whole range of development companies. More pertinently, Mr. Roberts’ name cropped up time and again in relation to that string of off -the-shelf companies involved in the dodgy developments blighting Liverpool and other northern cities.

Now, I do not know the reasons why Mr. Roberts was struck off, or whether or not his disbarring was connected in any way to the malpractice of the con artists behind the dodgy developments which affect inner Liverpool. However, it underlines the powers available to various kinds of regulators to hold people to account outside of the criminal justice system if those regulators are so disposed, and believe their intervention to be appropriate. It also raises questions about the apparent indifference of the council, the police, and the district auditor to alleged malfeasance  within areas for which they have responsibility. Until they all wake up and get their respective acts together, the crooks will continue to prosper.

There are a lot of honest people who are increasingly disillusioned with the quality of representation which they get at both a local and a national level. When, for example, they witness the coarse and degrading behaviour of councillors, as was recently the case in Liverpool, they are no longer as shocked as they might have once been. Citizens have become inured to lower standards in public life. They are tired of the lack of transparency and accountability; and, therefore, in many cases, have decided to try to do something about it.

The city-region being generally a Labour fiefdom (at least, at present), changes therein are mightily significant. Long-serving Labour councillors are now fearful for their hitherto comfortable seats and comfy council positions. The impetus behind Momentum is a great part of this. I am well aware that Momentum is more or less a new name for an old entity – the Broad Left in Labour Party circles. I am also aware that some tired old sectarian voices from the past are with them; but the majority of Momentum members appear to simply want a change from the out-dated clique-based politics of yesteryear. They want truly accountable and transparent representation.

As we see more young men and women selected for council seats, so we will see the demand for change increase. I hope they are successful because without fresh blood, I cannot see from where the motivation will arise which is necessary to effect positive democratic change across the city-region. Who knows, it might be kick-started locally with a debate on the Liverpool mayoralty, or the debate on the financing of Everton’s proposed stadium.